“Fundamentally broken” mobile security makes BYOD too risky, expert warns

The “fundamentally broken” security model of Google’s Android operating system makes bring your own device (BYOD) strategies too risky for companies to implement safely, a senior security researcher with Romanian security vendor Bitdefender has warned.

Android’s flexible design, which gives apps broad latitude in terms of the permissions they can request from the operating system, is part of the reason for its lack of suitability, he said, citing recent Bitdefender research that found even many popular paid apps are siphoning personal information to external advertising sites that not only suck up private data but can become conduits for Android malware.

“Nowadays phones are not just for making phone calls,” senior e-threat analyst Bogdan Botezatu told CSO Australia. “They are fully fledged computers, and are coming to look like cash cows for the bad guys because they have so much computing power that can be put to malicious use, for example by mining bitcoins.”

Lax controls over non-Google app stores, paired with customers’ natural desire for freedom of choice, meant many users were downloading questionable apps from unscreened sources. With inadequate detection methods built into the operating system those users were wide open for malware infections that can easily jump onto corporate networks.

“Android is flexible, and you are not tied to a specific app store,” Botezatu, himself a former systems administrator, explained. “You can just create your own app, not go to Google Play, and install it on your device. If an app asks for permission to access a user’s contacts, people usually accept it without thinking twice; you cannot control this, which is just human nature.”

Like many of its competitors, Bitdefender has been working to offer tools to help users better manage their mobile information privacy better. The upcoming Android version of the company’s Clueful application, for example, will scan the applications on an Android device to score its overall privacy security – and illustrate to users exactly what permissions each application has been given.

Many of those permissions will surprise people, with even the popular Angry Birds game – which was last year exploited with a malware-laced version – proving to be a voracious consumer of personal information that’s subsequently fed to advertising networks as a revenue spinner.

Such methods had provided financial support for small development houses struggling to turn a profit on $0.99 apps, but also forced users to create holes into their mobile devices whose nature and extent they may not appreciate.

“The security model of Android is fundamentally broken,” Botezatu said, “and I’m not sure it can be fixed without a major redesign.”

Although Google originally touted Android as being safe from hacking due to its Linux roots, recent developments have shown the platform as being anything but: the platform has been repeatedly singled out as vulnerable – with Australian Android users suffering the world’s highest rate of attacks in 2012 – and has been described as having a target on its back.

The deceptions are getting more elaborate every month: a targeted email attack was recently found to be distributing an Android Trojan while, this week, it was found that cybercriminals had constructed an entire new advertising framework that had tricked Google Play and had its malware-distribution framework downloaded millions of times through dozens of apps. That compromise, called BadNews, laid dormant for months before downloading well-known text-message fraud app AlphaSMS.

The proven ability of malware authors to exploit Android-based platforms has major implications for corporate BYOD policies, with Botezatu joining the ever-louder chorus of experts warning that BYOD’s focus on user freedoms makes it a security nightmare for enterprises.

 “This is one of the things that made Android so popular,” he said. “While it’s bad enough with one phone, it’s extremely difficult to manage a whole ecosystem of hundreds of devices. I wouldn’t even imagine allowing mobile BYOD.”


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